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This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 10, 1999. All rights reserved.
The Lindsays: Dressing Down
The British-based Lindsay String Quartet sends a welcome
to the public through their clothing. The ensemble shuns the almost
obligatory formal wear of classical performers. Instead of penguin
suits they wear colored shirts. Their dress is part of an effort to
attract audiences. "We try to break down barriers," says first
violinist (or leader, as he is known on the other side of the Atlantic)
Peter Cropper in a telephone interview from a Madrid hotel. "The
problem is that over 99 percent of the public know that chamber music
is boring, but they’ve never heard it. Our aim is to get them to come.
It’s O.K. if they don’t like our music, but to prejudge it is wrong."
The Lindsays have chosen the titanic Beethoven as an ally for their
next appearances in Princeton. In two sets of three concerts they
play his entire string quartet cycle at Richardson Auditorium. The
first group of concerts takes place Thursday, November 18; Friday,
November 19; and Saturday, November 20, at 8 p.m. The second group
is next April.
Two special events precede the November performances. The Lindsays
participate in a roundtable discussion entitled, "The Beethoven
Quartet Cycle: A Performer’s View," on Wednesday, November 17,
at 4:30 p.m, in Taplin Auditorium. On Thursday, November 18, at 4:30
p.m. music professor Scott Burnham gives a lecture-demonstration entitled
"The Late Mr. Beethoven," in which he treats the advent of
Beethoven’s so-called "late style" in the string quartets.
Playing the Beethoven cycle represents a coming of age for a string
quartet. Veteran string quartets like to return to the cycle because
it gives them a chance to re-think Beethoven’s compositional journey.
In all periods of his life Beethoven expressed himself in string quartets.
The entire cycle is a musical voyage that starts with the classics
and extends to creative regions that no other composer has ever reached.
The Lindsays have played the entire cycle on four continents, and
first violinist Cropper sizes up the audiences for which the quartet
plays, noting the national differences. "In Madrid they don’t
clap much at beginning and you think things are not going well, then
they clap wildly at the end. The Scandinavian countries are not known
for being particularly expressive. But in Finland the audience went
wild. They’re very much into standing up and slow handclapping; that’s
a great honor. Beethoven brings all audiences together."
The Lindsay’s 1989 album of Beethoven’s late quartets earned a Grammy
award. "If you asked me now what we would most like to record,"
he told Gramophone magazine, "I would have to say another complete
Beethoven cycle, not because it would necessarily be better, but it
would be different. The one in the catalog started life 20 years ago,
and our view has changed."
Beethoven, like Shakespeare, invites return visits by those who relish
the latest interpretations of knotty masterworks. And presenters like
to oblige them. The Beethoven quartet cycle recurs constantly in the
world’s concert halls. The cycle was last performed at Richardson
in 1989 to ’90, by the Tokyo Quartet; the six Tokyo concerts were
distributed throughout the year, and made up the entire chamber music
series for the season. The Tokyo later recorded the cycle in Richardson.
The preceding Richardson performance of the entire cycle took place
in the 1950s, by the Budapest Quartet.
The Lindsay Quartet dates from 1967. "We were all students at
the Royal Academy of Music," says Cropper, "and we formed
the quartet at the invitation of Keele University in Staffordshire.
The director of music was a horn player and wanted to have string
players at the university. He arranged for a fellowship and residency
for the quartet. A residency is relatively rare in England." The
quartet’s other members are Ronald Birks, violin, Robin Ireland, viola,
and Bernard Gregor-Smith, cello.
"I didn’t want to name the quartet after myself," Cropper
says, "so we decided to name it after the founder and head of
the college." Keele, Cropper explains, was founded shortly after
World War II by Lord Lindsay, a Scot, who followed the Scottish pattern
of a four-year degree, rather than the English pattern of a three-year
degree. "Everybody had to do foundation year," Cropper says.
"People doing arts had to do sciences and vice versa."
After five years in residence at Keele, the Lindsays went on to a
six-year residency at Sheffield University. Sheffield has remained
their base, despite their association since 1978 with Manchester University.
The Lindsays have performed more than 300 works, including premieres
of at least 30. They have pioneered all-Haydn programs, and have been
closely associated with the late Michael Tippett, who wrote his fourth
and fifth quartets for them.
"Tippett brought the essence of music from previous centuries
to music in the 20th century," Cropper says. "To use a cliche,
he could write a good tune. He also had tremendous energy. Those are
the two main qualities lacking in much of 20th century music. He had
eternal youth. He behaved like a 10-year-old schoolboy till the end
of his life." Cropper is sympathetic: "My aim in life is to
be Peter Pan," he says. "I’m doing pretty well at it."
Born in 1945, Cropper comes from a family with many musicians. "My
parents are not musical, but my uncle, aunt, and grandparents are.
At Sheffield I taught my uncle’s son, who didn’t go into music. The
musicality seems to crisscross." Perhaps, with the gene pool of
Cropper’s wife, Nina Martin, who teaches violin privately, it has
asserted itself in the generation of Cropper’s children. His son Martin
graduated from the Royal Academy of Music and founded the Regent Quartet,
which now has a residency in Birmingham. "He’s a block off the
old chip," says father Peter. "I mean he’s more like me than
I am myself." Peter’s daughter Hazel studies music at Birmingham;
she plays oboe, and would like to conduct.
Cropper started his violin studies at the relatively
late age of 12. "I’m still trying to catch up," he says. The
self-deprecating remark may not have a great deal of basis in fact.
By the time Cropper was 13 he was a member of the National Youth Orchestra
In the youth orchestra Cropper met his future wife. As a student at
the Royal Academy of Music, he worked with his future father-in-law,
David Martin. His honors as a student include the prize for the best
final year recital.
In addition to performing as one of the Lindsays, and as a soloist,
Cropper has been heard on BBC, and has served on the music panel of
the Arts Council of Great Britain. His Arts Council service gave him
the impetus to look into promoting music, as well as playing it, and
turned him into something of an entrepreneur. As impresario, he now
manages about 75 chamber concerts a year in Sheffield, where he resides.
The musical enterprises in Sheffield include an autumn and winter
series, a spring series, and an international festival in May. The
Lindsay quartet is heavily involved in performing in the concerts,
which present internationally known chamber groups and pianists, as
well as a leavening of jazz and folk events. This season there is
a bonus of eight all-Beethoven concerts formatted as what Cropper
calls "a small weekend festival in January, 2000."
The international chamber music festival based in Sheffield was started
in 1984 and has been renamed "Music in the Round." The Royal
Philharmonic Society cited it in 1994 for its imaginative programming.
"The idea originally was to have two weeks of 32 concerts,"
Cropper says. "We started by focusing on a single composer —
Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart. But we ran out of composers. Then we
did national festivals — Russia, Spain, France. This May we did
999 years of music. About half the music is by the Lindsay Quartet.
In about a third of the concerts the Lindsays perform as a string
quartet; in about a sixth it’s individual members of the quartet."
Cropper has just received the go-ahead for the formation of a professional
orchestra in Sheffield. "Sheffield, where we live," he says,
"has half a million people. It’s the largest city in Europe that
does not have a professional orchestra." Asked whether the problem
of creating the orchestra is a matter of finances or one of willpower,
Cropper answers, "It’s all willpower. The finances look after
themselves if you have the willpower. It’s an interesting problem.
Sheffield till recently was leftist. It thought of the arts as elitist,
which was a derogatory term. Elitist should really be thought of as
for the best. Then there was a change in politics. Tony Blair (Britain’s
Prime Minister) seems to be behaving like a chameleon. That’s to our
Cropper has enlisted the Sheffield municipal government. "If the
council supports something and they take it up, it succeeds."
He also has his eye on the national administration. "We’re fortunate
that David Blunkett, the Minister of Education, comes from Sheffield.
He’s obviously one person I have to get to."
Despite his politicking, Cropper takes time to reflect
on the strategies of playing string quartets. "The whole essence
of string quartet playing," he says, "is a discussion. Sometimes
it’s an agreement; sometimes it’s an argument." Cropper’s taste
clearly ranks disagreement above unanimity. "What’s the difference
between a piano sonata and a string quartet?" he asks rhetorically.
"In a sonata," he goes on, "there’s only one head controlling
both hands, so you can only pretend to argue."
A problem for young quartets, he continues, "is that they tend
to start playing with matched sounds. They use the same bowings, and
the same attacks. What you end up with is the lowest common denominator.
That’s a disastrous result. It’s better to build each individual up
to their full potential, so each can bring their particular strengths
to the quartet. Then you get a quartet that’s bigger than the sum
of it’s parts, and the weaknesses get covered up because somebody
else has got that strength."
Cropper proposes a solution for keeping egos dormant in chamber groups.
"When each player says `I like it like this,’" he suggests,
"the individual characters clash. If you ask, `How did the composer
want it?’ then your character is subsumed into that discussion and
everyone is asking the same question; the individual is no longer
important as a character; only the music is important. It doesn’t
solve every problem, but it solves a lot of problems."
As for the Beethoven cycle, "the main thing is to get contrast,"
he says. "Beethoven himself was fond of contrast." To achieve
variety the Lindsays have scheduled three quartets per program, with
one quartet from Beethoven’s early, middle, and late periods at each
concert. (To make it come out even, they count Beethoven’s transcription
of his piano sonata No. 9, opus 14, No. 1 as a middle quartet, and
the alternative ending for the opus 130 quartet as a separate late
Cropper stands ready to pursue the Lindsay’s Beethoven cycle with
all comers. No introduction is necessary. Neither is a learned background.
"I would be delighted," he says, "if anybody stopped me
in the street and said, `Tell me about this guy Beethoven.’" He’s
seriously interested in breaking down barriers.
— Elaine Strauss
Taplin Auditorium, Fine Hall, 609-258-4239. A roundtable discussion
featuring the Lindsay String Quartet, free. Wednesday, November
17, 4:30 p.m.
Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday,
November 18, 19, and 20, at 8 p.m.
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